The Games People Play

The techno-wizard heroes in Sneakers aren't the dirty dozen, or the magnificent seven, but this winning team of brainy misfits deserves a moniker, so we'll call them the Farfetched Five. Led by Robert Redford, as a former '60s radical long gone underground, the multigenerational group includes a politically paranoid breaking-and-entering expert named Mother (Dan Aykroyd), a former CIA man bounced from the Company (Sidney Poitier), a 19-year-old computer whiz kid (River Phoenix) and a blind audio expert named Whistler (scene-stealer David Strathairn). Hired by companies to test their security systems (by breaking into them), these five guys with shady pasts are blackmailed by the National Security Agency into embarking on a high-risk, topsecret operation. Their mission impossible: to steal a little black box that has the capacity to break all the secret codes in the government's computer banks. Just the kind of little black box that people will kill for.

Plausibility is not the movie's strongest suit, but Phil Alden Robinson's enjoyable caper makes up for its gaps in logic with its breezy tone and its technological razzledazzle. The Farfetched Five are hardware magicians, pulling wonders out of computers, listening devices and surveillance gizmos. Redford, back in his best carefree form, leads his band against his old college chum Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), a power-mad genius. "Sneakers" sputters toward the finish line, when the narrow escapes get too silly and the jokey nonchalance too callow. But it's built up so much good will you'll follow these guys anywhere.

David Greene (Brendan Fraser), a star quarterback from a working-class high school in Scranton, Pa., transfers to the hallowed halls of St. Matthew's Academy in Massachusetts, a WASPy boarding school badly in need of gridiron victory. There's a hitch: David is Jewish, a fact he hides from his Ivy Leaguebound schoolmates and the shiksa who falls for his sensitive, broad-shouldered charm.

Director Robert Mandel's sturdy drama, written by Dick Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan, is set in the 1950s, Hollywood's preferred era on the subject of racial or religious prejudice. Soon enough, David's secret slips out, and out of the mouths of the wellbred bigots at St. Matthew's come pouring vile anti-Semitic epithets. David's romantic rival, Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon), is delighted to find his competitor ostracized, and does his best to scapegoat the Jew when someone is accused of cheating on an exam. Stories like this always exert a sure-fire emotional pull-the audience loves to get its blood boiling-but the issue is so morally cut and dried there's little room for dramatic surprise. "School Ties" doesn't offer much fresh insight on its subject, but it tells its familiar tale well, adapting the straightforward virtues of '5Os storytelling to evoke that mythical era to which Pat Buchanan and friends would like us all to return. Mandel isn't a bludgeoner; his young, fresh cast is mighty good; and, to its credit, the movie resists the impulse to wrap everything up with a smiley ending. Anti-Semitism didn't go away in the '50s; it just lowered its voice for a while.

Cameron Crowe, the 35-year-old former rock reporter turned writer/director, showed in "Say Anything" a fresh, quirky affinity for teen experience. Now he turns his attention to a twentysomething set of friends, most of whom share a common address in a modest Seattle apartment house, and all of whom are obsessed with the dating-and-mating game. Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), an environmentalist too often burned in love, meets and tries to resist Steve (Campbell Scott), a compulsive, workaholic city engineer trying to keep a lid on his passions. Steve's former girlfriend Janet (Bridget Fonda) is so obsessed with the dim, self-absorbed would-be rock star Cliff (Matt Dillon) that she wants to get breast implants to please him, while ditsy, man-crazy Debbie (Sheila Kelley) is convinced the way to find the man of her dreams is hawking herself in a dating-service video.

Employing an unconventional structure full of funny flashbacks and talking-to-the-camera monologues, "Singles" is brimful of clever bits and likable performances. Why, then, does it seem so weightless? Something slick and generic has slipped into Crowe's work: too much of "Singles" feels like television. His sympathy for the youth culture now feels not so much uncanny as canned. You want to like a movie this inventive, this friendly, and you can't deny Crowe's talent. But "Singles" is all approach: it never seems to arrive.

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